Fast Facts

An EPA regulation allows farmworkers to designate a representative to find out which pesticides are used where they work. This information can help farmworkers with pesticide exposure illnesses get faster diagnoses and better treatment.

Farmers have raised concerns that other farmers could be misusing pesticide information for competitive advantage. The EPA, state officials, and others told us they didn't know of any instances of misused information. But EPA guidance doesn't outline how pesticide information should be used.

We made 2 recommendations, including that the EPA explain its expectations on the appropriate use of pesticide information.

Farmworkers in Georgia Picking Strawberries

people bent over and with boxes picking fruit

Skip to Highlights
Highlights

What GAO Found

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and states ensure compliance with the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard (WPS) primarily through inspections of farms. The states collect some information—such as the number of inspections they conduct—and provide that information to EPA as part of cooperative agreements between EPA and the states. The extent of use of the designated representative provision of the WPS, and its effect on the availability of pesticide information, are not known because EPA does not collect information on the use of the provision and does not coordinate with states to do so. EPA's guidance to states for conducting inspections encourages, but does not require, state inspectors to ask farmers and farmworkers about whether a designated representative has been used. EPA officials said that the agency has not asked states to collect information on the provision because the agency has focused on compliance with other aspects of the WPS. By coordinating with states, through the cooperative agreements or some another mechanism, to collect information on the use of the designated representative provision, EPA would be better positioned to determine whether the provision is serving its intended purpose.

Some stakeholders have raised concerns about potential misuse of pesticide information, such as other farmers using the information obtained by a designated representative to gain a competitive advantage. However, EPA officials, state officials, and stakeholders told us they did not know of any instance in which a person serving as a designated representative misused the pesticide information obtained from farmers. Neither EPA's guidance nor its website explain the agency's expectations for appropriate use or describe how such information could be misused. EPA officials said that the agency has not explained what constitutes misuse. By explaining, in the agency's guidance, on its website, or through another mechanism, EPA's expectations about appropriate use of pesticide information obtained by designated representatives, including the misuse of such information, the agency could ensure designated representatives understand the importance of the information in reducing the consequences of pesticide exposure.

Farmworkers Picking Strawberries at a Farm

Farmworkers Picking Strawberries at a Farm

Why GAO Did This Study

The use of pesticides contributes to U.S. agricultural productivity by protecting crops against pests or weeds, but this use may pose risks to human health. To reduce the consequences of pesticide exposure to farmworkers' health, EPA revised the WPS in 2015 to include a provision that allows a farmworker to identify a person who can request, for their benefit, certain pesticide information from their employer—this is called the designated representative provision.

This report examines (1) what is known about the extent of use and effect of the designated representative provision on the availability of pesticide information and (2) what is known about any misuse of information obtained through the provision.

GAO reviewed laws, regulations, and guidance, and interviewed officials from EPA and 13 selected states about how they implement and oversee compliance with the standard. GAO also interviewed stakeholders, such as farmer groups and farmworker advocacy groups.

Skip to Recommendations

Recommendations

GAO is making two recommendations to EPA to (1) coordinate with states to collect information on the use of the designated representative provision and (2) take steps to explain, in guidance, on its website, or through another mechanism, the agency's expectations about appropriate use of pesticide information obtained by a designated representative and describe potential misuse of such information. EPA agreed, in part, to both recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance The Assistant Administrator for EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance should coordinate with states to collect information on the use of the designated representative, either through its annual cooperative agreement work plans with states or another mechanism. The collection of information on use could include consistently compiling the information obtained through inspections across states—specifically, whether farmworkers are using designated representatives and whether farmers are providing the information to the designated representatives within the time frames required by the WPS. (Recommendation 1)
Open
According to EPA, as of August 2021, the agency is planning to work with co-regulators, or through another appropriate vehicle, to solicit comments on the use of the designated representative provision. For example, according to EPA, the agency has already started conversations with state co-regulators who have primary responsibility for conducting Agricultural Worker Protection Standard inspections on this topic and is exploring options for collecting the necessary information from them. Furthermore, EPA plans to initiate communication with the Association of American Pesticide Control Officers and the State Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act Issues Research Evaluation Group to discuss the best method to collect information to determine whether the designated representative provision is being utilized by farmworkers and whether agricultural establishments are complying with WPS requirements. EPA estimates that it will take 12 to 18 months to implement our recommendation, depending on availability of co-regulators, and would like to reserve the option to extend the timeframe if needed. We will continue to monitor EPA's actions in response to this recommendation.
Office of Pesticide Programs The Director for EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs should, in the agency's guidance, on its website, or through another mechanism, explain EPA's expectations about the appropriate use of the pesticide information obtained by a designated representative, including describing potential misuse of such information. (Recommendation 2)
Open
According to EPA, as of August 2021, EPA has taken actions to address part of the recommendation about explaining EPA's expectations about appropriate use of information by updating content, information, and support materials about the designated representative requirements and to explain intent of the designated representative provision. For example, EPA said the agency developed an email address dedicated to responding to designated representative inquiries, updated the explanation of the designated representative provision on relevant Worker Protection Standard webpages and provided updated guidance and education materials about the designated representative. In EPA's August 2021 response letter, EPA said it disagrees with a part of this recommendation about describing or providing examples of potential misuse of information. This is because EPA is unaware of any prior instances of misuse and because potential misuse of information about the designated representative may be addressed by EPA's additional explanation and guidance cited above, established requirements that mitigate potential concerns about misuse of information, and that EPA does not have clear statutory authority to address some examples of potential concern about misuse of information. In addition, EPA said issuing guidance attempting to address appropriate use versus misuse of information would defeat the intent of the provision and that EPA does not have the legal authority to enforce penalties against persons who do not follow the guidance or information on the website. We will continue to monitor EPA's response to this recommendation.

Full Report

GAO Contacts